Groovin ‘ at the San Francisco Jazz Festival

Friday evening at the 20th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, after a trek up Powell Street because the streetcar was out of service, we went to Grace Cathedral to see saxophonist James Carter and the Tuvan throat-singing group, Huun-Huur-Tu. Grace Cathedral is a great edifice in San Francisco and I was excited about hearing music in this space.
Huun-Huur-Tu originates from the mountainous Russian Republic of Tuva, just north of Mongolia. Each is a master of multiphonics, the ability to produce two distinct pitches. Their sound and their music were definitely unique and filled the cathedral. They were very entertaining but their set ran a little long.
James Carter roared through his set with great tenacity. He made his horn speak, squawk, and growl and filled the room with a melodious but sometimes ear-piercing sound. The highlight of his performance was a powerful rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” intertwined with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Later in his set, he was joined by Huun-Huur-Tu and they performed a couple of numbers together. Carter was challenged but blended brilliantly with Huun-Huur-Tu’s vocal sounds.
Saturday evening was the crowning night of the SF Jazz Festival for me for two great jazz legends of our time were performing at the Masonic Auditorium, Shirley Horn and Ahmad Jamal. Shirley’s set opened differently than it had in the past. George Mesterhazy replaced Shirley on the piano, Eddie Howard replaced the late Charles Ables on “the baas” (as Shirley would say) and her old faithful, Steve Williams was on the drums. They warmed up the crowd with an instrumental. Shirley was then wheeled on stage and greeted with a loud applause. Always graceful and glamorous, she looked wonderful as she opened with “All Or Nothing At All.” Despite not being at the piano (due to a foot amputation earlier this year), Shirley was still very much in charge and kept her trio under her spell. She flowed through such gems as “How Am I To Know”, “A Time For Love”, and “Come In From The Rain.” She gave a very playful and sensual rendition of “Fever.” The highlight of the evening was her poignant rendition of The Beatles’ classic, “Yesterday.” There was such a silence that fell over the room, you could hear her every breath. It was very moving. She closed with her signature song, “Here’s To Life” and as wonderful as she was, I look forward to the day when she is back at the helm of her Steinway piano.

I had the pleasure of seeing Ahmad Jamal perform last year at Yoshi’s so I knew we would be in for a treat. He commands his piano like no other and brings each note to life. He and his trio came on stage and Ahmad Jamal slowly walked to the piano. When he sat down and struck the keys, he came to life with such vibrant energy that he would jump up in the middle of a song. Idris Muhummad on drums and James Cammack on bass rounded out his trio. Ahmad’s exuberant performance included “In Search Of” and his classic “Ponciana.” I especially enjoyed how Ahmad and his trio would shift effortlessly through tempos depending on how many fingers he would hold up. It was truly a great performance.

“If you want to make money, you go play rock. If you play jazz, you’re playing for yourself.” – Ellis Marsalis

Sunday afternoon, we saw pianist Ellis Marsalis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson at the Herbst Theatre. This was a matinee so it was geared for families and children or kids at heart like me. They played a few songs together and then brought up kids from the audience to tryout the piano and vibraphone. I thought to myself that I would have been overjoyed to have an experience like that as a kid.
During the Q&A, Ellis, the patriarch of the Marsalis musical family, explained that he started playing when he was age 11. He also told us he did not play much music with his children when they were growing up. He believed in formal music education. Bobby started playing at 13. He explained how the different colored mallots provide different tones. He also explained the difference between the vibraphone and the xylophone. I had the opportunity to see Bobby play along side vibraphone legend Milt Jackson and young jazz lion Stefon Harris at the SF Jazz Fest in 1998. It was once in a lifetime performance between three generations of vibraphonists.

One Response to “Groovin ‘ at the San Francisco Jazz Festival”

  1. Helena says:

    Who does the jazz rendition of the Dramatics’s In The Rain? Please help!

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